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The History of the Future

Reviewed: August 19, 2003
By: David A. Wilson
Publisher: McArthur and Company
295 pages, $18.95

Whether itís the astrology column in the daily newspaper, an attempt by the Fraser Institute to predict coming trends, or a polling firm trying to pick the winner in an election, we are fascinated with the future. David Wilsonís entertaining and informative study looks at some of the many ways in which this desire has expressed itself in the western world.

A lot of the fuss about the future goes back to those very basic questions: Why are we here? and What is the point of it all? As the science fiction writer, Douglas Adams, put it so cogently in one of his amusing books, we are in search of the meaning to life, the universe and everything.

He posited a cosmic computer which provided an answer. In the real world we have no such luck. We remain stuck with two questions which have no objectively provable answers: How do we and the universe begin? How do we and the universe end?

Thus, there is an age old fascination with the subject of prophecy, most of it rooted in a basic misunderstanding of what prophecy is and how it works. Since a lot of prophetic literature uses the Bible for its source book, it might help to look at what the prophets of old were actually up to.

Biblical prophecy is not generally predictive BEFORE THE FACT. Most of the time the prophets spend a lot of space rehashing the history of the the Jewish people, explaining how they got to whatever mess they were in at the time, how it was related to their behavior (especially towards Yahweh), and how much worse things were likely to get if they didn't get back to basics and clean up their act.

The second level of prophecy kicks in years later, when the people look back on what the prophet wrote and reinterpret it in the light of subsequent events, adding layers of meaning which may not actually have been in the mind of the person who wrote the original passage. In this sense, prophecy is an attempt to make a story out of the chaos which is human events.

Most of the trends that Wilson follows in the first part of this book are like this, with the added notion that has crept in over time. In the popular mind there is often the idea that the prophet, by the act of for(th)telling the future, can help to shape it in the direction of his or her prophecy. In other words, prophecy is sometimes an attempt to make God (however that being may be perceived) hurry up.

Most prophets are less successful than Jean Dixon, who made thousands of predictions every year and got most of them wrong, but whose public relations material generally focussed on the the few times she was correct.

Many of the movements chronicled in Wilson's book have to do with attempts to bring on the new Heaven on Earth. Most of these movements are peopled by the disenfranchised of the world, who hope to somehow be able to better their lot. In a world where life has generally been nasty, brutish and short for the great mass of the population, these people want to believe in a brighter future.

About halfway through the book Wilson shifts his focus from mythology and religion to literature and politics. There has been a great deal of literature written with the future in mind. In our day, of course, an entire publishing category, science fiction, is devoted to it, and even major novelists, like Margaret Atwood, use its themes and furniture when they want to discuss serious topics in an allegorical way.

Wilson naturally has to deal with Verne, Wells, Orwell, Huxley and Atwood in his listing of writers† who have mined the future in order to talk about the present, or issued manifestos which have the force of prophecy in some cases, most of them decidedly negative.

Saddam Hussein's Iraq, for instance, was eerily as if the dictator had read and applied everything he could find in Nineteen Eighty-Four, right down to his own Big Brotherish personal appearance.

What Orwell had done, though, was take the worst aspects of Naziism and Stalinism and shove them together in his literary blender. He was not predicting; he was forth telling, extrapolating from the known to the unknown.

Predictive thinking can be of great benefit to a person. It keeps the mind limber and insulates somewhat against the inevitability of what Alvin Toffler called "future shock. As a tool for looking at options it is good. As a road map to the the coming world it has tended to be more trouble than it is worth, and has been at the root of much human misery

Wilson's book is a fascinating and accessible look at a complex subject.

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